William Gilmore Simms's Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization

William Gilmore Simms's Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization

William Gilmore Simms's Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization

William Gilmore Simms's Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization

Synopsis

During William Gilmore Simms's life (1806-1870), book reviews and critical essays became vital parts of American literary culture and intellectual discourse. Simms was an assiduous reviewer and essayist, proving by example the importance of those genres. William Gilmore Simms's Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization publishes for the first time in book form sixty-two examples of the writer's hundreds of newspaper and periodical reviews and book notes as well as four important critical essays. Together, the reviews and essays reveal the regional, national, and international dimensions of Simms's intellectual interests.
To frame the two distinct parts of Selected Reviews, James Everett Kibler, Jr., and David Moltke-Hansen have written a general introduction that considers the development of book reviewing and the authorship of essays in cultural and historical contexts. In part one, Kibler offers an introduction that examines Simms's reviewing habits and the aesthetic and critical values that informed the author's reviews. Kibler then publishes selected texts of reviews and provides historical and cultural backgrounds for each selection. Simms was an early proponent of the critical theories of Romantics such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edgar Allan Poe. Widely read in European history and literature, he reviewed works published in French, German, and classics in original Greek and Latin and in translation. Simms also was an early, ardent advocate of works of local color and of southern "backwoods" humorists of his day. Simms published notices of seven of Herman Melville's novels, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and favorably reviewed Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
Simms published numerous review essays of twenty thousand or more words in literary journals and also republished two collections in book form. These volumes treated such subjects as Americanism in literature and the American Revolution in South Carolina. Yet, as part two of Selected Reviews demonstrates, Simms ranged much more widely in the intellectual milieu. Such cultural and political topics as the 1848 revolution in France, the history of the literary essay, the roles of women in the American Revolution, and the activities of the southern convention in Nashville in 1850 captured Simms's attention. Moltke-Hansen's introduction to part two examines Simms's roles in, and responses to, the Romantic critical revolution and the other revolutions then roiling Europe and America.

Excerpt

Why literary and cultural criticism? Examination of the career of the Charleston, South Carolina, poet and fictionist William Gilmore Simms poses the question insistently. Simms spent more than a quarter of his forty-five-year career between 1825 and 1870 editing journals that were largely but not exclusively literary in nature. He spent as many more years contributing to newspapers as a literary book reviewer, cultural journalist, and political commentator. in total he wrote criticism that would fill more than twenty thick volumes. the subjects of these reviews, notices, and essays were predominately literary, perhaps in the ratio of three to one. That does not suggest, however, that the nonliterary reviews were not an important focus—particularly in Simms’s tenure as editor of the Southern Quarterly Review from 1849 to 1854, when the ratio became close to even. Less than five percent of Simms’s reviews of literary and nonliterary topics are included here.

In these efforts Simms was participating in a broad culture of magazine and newspaper publication (Wells, Women Writers and Journalists, 57–75). That culture, and Simms, saw criticism as just one of the vocations of the man of letters. Poetry was the first both historically and personally. in that and other literary engagements, Simms insisted that the man of letters should discover, discern, and express, not merely describe. For Simms discernment carried spiritual connotations. He distinguished between what is essential to our nature and our enduring humanity and what is merely the fleeting, or, as Simms phrased the latter, of the “butterfly, bless’d in a bright caprice” (Simms, Selected Poems, 240). Simms insisted that the duty of the poet was to be “a minister to man,” at once opening vistas and denouncing the “besetting” sin of the age, materialism, and its chief failing, literalism (Thierauf, “Ancient Wisdom versus Material Progress,” 143; Simms, The Wigwam and the Cabin, 1: 1).

Because he understood his romances to be prose epics, these understandings also shaped his fiction. As fiction writer, he was to be realistic, lively, and genial . . .

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